New Delhi: Space enthusiasts' excitement and anticipations were heightened when NASA announced Cassini's new mission phase - its Ring-Grazing Orbits.
The 20 week-long orbits carries the spacecraft high above Saturn's northern hemisphere before sending it skimming past the outer edges of the planet's main rings.
Cassini began the journey on November 30 and took its first plunge closest to Saturn's rings on December 4.
Now, NASA has shared the incredible first images – Cassini's first views of Saturn’s atmosphere – beamed back to Earth by the spacecraft.
Cassini’s imaging cameras acquired these latest views on December 2 and 3, about two days before the first ring-grazing approach to the planet.
Looking at these images, we certainly can't wait to see the photographs from future passes, which NASA says will include images from near closest approach, including some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons that orbit there.
"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn. Let these images -- and those to come -- remind you that we’ve lived a bold and daring adventure around the solar system’s most magnificent planet," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado, NASA reported.
Cassini's next flyby of the rings' outer edges is scheduled for December 11. Mission ring-grazing orbits will last till April 22, 2017, when the last close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan will once again reshape Cassini's flight path.
According to the American space agency, with that encounter, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale, leaping over the rings and making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring on April 26.
On September 15, the mission's planned conclusion will be a final dive into Saturn's atmosphere. During its plunge, Cassini will transmit data about the atmosphere's composition until its signal is lost, NASA said.
The image below, shows a collage of photographs from NASA's Cassini spacecraft displaying Saturn's northern hemisphere and rings as viewed with four different spectral filters. Each filter is sensitive to different wavelengths of light and reveals clouds and hazes at different altitudes. (Image courtesy: Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)